Precarious future for Afghan base workers

Thousands toiling at ISAF bases will soon be out of work and facing Taliban retribution.

    Precarious future for Afghan base workers
    Mohammad, an Afghan interpreter, says it will be dangerous when US forces withdraw [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]

    Forward Operating Base Ghazni, Afghanistan - When a story appeared about the United States denying an increasing number of Afghan interpreters' visa applications, the news spread like wildfire among workers on this military installation.

    Ghazni is a province in eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban remains strong in many districts. These interpreters have risked their lives on missions with US soldiers, and now they feel like they are about to be abandoned.

    Mohammad has worked as an interpreter for the US Army for six years. "I've gotten old on this FOB [Forward Operating Base]," the 31-year-old said with a smile.

    Originally from Ghazni province, Mohammad moved his family to the capital, Kabul, after receiving a series of phone calls threatening to kill them, and hearing from a neighbour that the Taliban had come around asking about him by name.

    We don't tell anyone in Ghazni we work here... We leave each morning very early and go home late so our neighbours don't see where we go.

    - Baz Mohammed, 25, Afghan base worker

    When he makes the rare trip to Kabul to visit his family, he first calls a local driver he trusts to take him into Ghazni city. He is dropped off at a hotel where he has tea and then leaves out the back entrance, finds a new taxi, and has it circle the city randomly for a while to lose anyone following him before heading to the highway.

    On the dangerous highway, he said he hopes not to be recognised at a Taliban checkpoint.

    "I have to get out of this country, as soon as possible. One interpreter I knew, from Jalalabad, was stopped in a taxi at a checkpoint, taken, and chopped up," said Mohammad, who asked that his surname not be published for safety reasons.

    Beside the threats that interpreters face from a persistent insurgency, there is a real economic imperative to leave as well. Thousands of Afghan workers on International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) bases will soon be out of work and entering a local economy that, according to a report by the World Bank, is among the most aid-dependent in the world.

    In 2010-11, the last years for which the report has data, the amount of money spent on aid was roughly equal to the country's GDP. Currently, about 48 percent of Afghans are underemployed and "weakening labour markets during the transition could worsen the jobs outlook".

    Out-of-luck labourers

    Unlike the military interpreters, other Afghan base workers face many of the same threats - both physical and economic - but without the hope of receiving a Western visa. ISAF bases depend on Afghan manual labour. They clean the toilets, empty the septic tanks, clear out the trash, and keep the bases supplied with water and fuel. They are in many ways the lifeblood of a base.

    Several hundred such workers ply their trade on FOB Ghazni, which at its peak supported some 3,000-4,000 soldiers and foreign civilians. The workers go by largely unnoticed, spending their free time in a few tents near the edge of the base in a muddy yard where they park their trucks. But when they are not around - as was the case for several days after an attack on the base last August - and the trash begins to pile up and the bathrooms run out of water, their absence is keenly felt.

    Supervisors make between $300-$600 per month, several times what they could hope to make working off-base. Labourers pull in about $150 per month - a good salary in Afghanistan for an uneducated person. Unlike interpreters, they live off-base. They share houses in Ghazni city, as most are from other provinces, having found the job through friends, and commute each day to work. They say their neighbours are reasonably trustworthy, but one of their buildings was attacked with a grenade last summer.

    "We don't tell anyone in Ghazni we work here. When someone asks us what we do, we say we work with a construction company. We leave each morning very early and go home late so our neighbours don't see where we go," said Baz Mohammed, 25. He hasn't told his family what he does so they won't worry.

    Amir Gul, 35, a supervisor of trash collectors, overheard the conversation and cut in. "The US should provide visas to labourers like they do interpreters. We're at risk too," he said.

    When foreign aid begins to dry up it will become extremely difficult to find a job, and many men will end up leaving the country for Iran, Pakistan, or the Gulf states, Gul said.

    After these bases close, it will be difficult, and dangerous. If I find a government job, or a job with the Afghan army, I'll stay. If not, I'll have to travel to a foreign country to look for work.

    - Toor Yalay, 24, Afghan labourer

    'Full of Taliban'

    Toor Yalay, 24, drives a truck and cleans bathrooms. He has spent half his life working on ISAF bases, beginning as a guard at the age of 12. His father died when he was young and he was forced to take a job to help his family. His brother also worked on the bases until he was killed by the Taliban.

    "It's dangerous going home to visit. The highway is full of Taliban. When I leave to go home I don't tell anyone here I'm leaving, because I don't know whom I can trust. After these bases close, it will be difficult, and dangerous. If I find a government job, or a job with the Afghan army, I'll stay. If not, I'll have to travel to a foreign country to look for work."

    Besides cleaning bathrooms, Toor Yalay is also something of a chef, honing his skills in the many years he's lived away from home for work. On a recent afternoon the workers had a party to host some Polish journalists who were visiting the base. Inside the tent were a couple of large tables set for a feast: rice, lamb, beef, chicken, potatoes, pomegranates and oranges. Toor Yalay sat in the corner, presiding over large pots of food, watching the crowd contentedly. 

    A random handful of Polish and US soldiers mixed with the workers and interpreters. Some soldiers took photos with those they knew, holding up chicken legs or forks, documenting this strange moment in which their otherwise disparate lives had crossed; a moment in which they were not equals and not quite friends, but sort of amicable acquaintances, briefly brought together in a symbiotic relationship, just before their paths would radically diverge.

    Afghan trash collectors line up to be escorted off-base
    [Sean O'Neill/Al Jazeera]

    An interpreter from Paktika province, with residency in the United Kingdom, looked at the smiling Afghan workers, proudly watching their delighted guests. "You know, it's going to be really hard for them when this base closes, finding jobs. And if Taliban knows they worked on a base... it's going to be tough."

    In a few months, these Polish and American soldiers will go home and will not be replaced.

    The same will happen on bases across the country, and thousands of Afghan workers will be unemployed.

    Some will find work in the Afghan army or police. Some of those will inevitably be killed. Others will leave Afghanistan to be part of an underclass of low-paid labourers elsewhere.

    For many in the West, Afghanistan is already an afterthought. For many more, it will soon be as NATO's war in Afghanistan comes to an ambiguous "end". For these workers though, it will be the beginning of a new, more difficult struggle. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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